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[PP - F16] The Most Dangerous Game

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Closed to Baldur

"And the next stop on our Aincrad tour is..." Lessa paused to drum a dramatic staccato on the wooden fence, "floor sixteen!" As if to acknowledge the introduction, the nearest volcano gave a mighty belch, sending a plume of black smoke unfurling toward the dark sky. The blonde winced, then turned to her companion. Her smile was lopsided, and more than a little apprehensive. "Alright, we can say we've been here. Now we leave?"

But she knew there was no escape. At least, not so soon. When the pair had promised to tour the floating castle together, the intention had been to explore thoroughly. Warping in just to warp back out again was out of the question. So she blew out a breath, and raked a hand through her long mane of blonde hair. "Yeah, you're right," she spoke again, though Baldur had not actually said anything. "We've got to stick around, and give the floor a chance. But... I mean..." With a wave of her right hand, the woman motioned to their surroundings. Together, they stood at the entrance to Zugaikotsushima, which was something straight out of a museum's hunters-and-gatherers exhibit. The scene was abysmal when compared to the various other floors. Sixteen lacked the polish of floor twenty-three, and the timelessness of floor four. It had none of floor seventeen's magnificence, nor floor ten's beauty. In fact, she sort of likened floor sixteen to Isla Nublar, and she knew how that worked out in the end.

"I've actually never been here," she admitted to Baldur, brushing at the tiniest flake of ash that clung, like black snow, to her hoodie's sleeve. "I know, right? So hard to believe." Now Lessa's smile was larger, and more genuine. Talking with Baldur had grown easier over the past few days, as they adventured across the floating castle together. Slowly and surely, they were recapturing some of that friendship that had once united them. There were moments when it was as if the months apart had never even occurred. She liked those moments the best.

Edited by Lessa

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Baldur looked around the island that Lessa had taken them too. It wa a volcanic floor, covered in islands, each with an ominous plume of smoke rising from them. He looked around, and just as he remembered, it was life flourishing all around them.

But he had never been to this floor before either.

Lessa spoke to him, but would answer by the time that he had opened his mouth to say something in response. Perhaps a bit of a nervous habit. It wouldn't be from them being alone together. They had gotten over that a few days ago on their tour. Was it perhaps being on an island? Baldur knew people often got 'island fever' and felt that they couldn't escape, but he had never understood that... perhaps because he had spent more time on an island than anyone else, but it was also why being in a floating castle was not enough to give him that feeling either. He did not feel closed in, even with then had only been to floor 8 as the highest floor.

"I've never been here before either. It's beautiful though... reminds me of somewhere I spent a summer as a kid. Volcanos are not nearly as dangerous as people make them out to be."

Another island apart from theirs coughed, and smoke bellowed out as it shot a rock the size of a car into the sky before it crashed into the ocean with a his before disappearing.

"At least... they aren't in the real world. I remember my grandmother once told me a story. My Great grandfather had been in Hawaii during one of the great eruptions. He and a friend went to go check it out, standing near the caldera when it hurled out a rock, and it crushed the man my grandfather went with to see the volcano. He was the only fatality from the eruption... lava doesn't go very fast. But 4 feet difference, and I would not be standing here right now."

Baldur paused, and looked at Lessa.

"That wasn't meant to be so dark, and that was a terrible job of making you relax." Baldur chuckled a bit nervously and pushed some of his dark hair off from the color of his sky blue haori so it feel down his back.

"What I took away from it, is that the world puts us where we are through an amazing set of circumstances. Some seem like destiny, some are just... chance. But we are all here, and that is amazing on its own right."

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Lessa had to fight to keep from gaping as Baldur told his tale. When he was finished, she blew out a breath, rolled her eyes, and said, "Yeah, you're really great at this whole comforting thing. You should see if you can make a profession out of it." But the her smile didn't falter as she gave his ribs a light jab with her elbow. "I can always count on you to have some wise words for any situation. So I guess I can find some comfort in the consistency. I'll always have my very own walking, talking fortune cookie."

A chorus of voices rose from directly behind them, and Lessa turned to see a trio of natives speaking rapidly. It was all just a jumble of sound, and only after she focused intently did the words become clear. Though her in-game translator functioned well, they spoke so quickly that only snatches of phrases, such as "missing," and "looking for" actually game through. Then, as quickly as the conversation had come, the NPCs were moving on. She watched them progress down the short street, and turn into one of the largest structures. Building, she figured, was too generous a term for it. Instead, the construction was a chaotic balance of sticks, hide, rock, and what may have been mud. 

Interest piqued, the blonde turned to glance at her friend. "So," she began, waggling her eyebrows at him, "what do you think? I know it's not really sticking to the plan, but that just screams quest. Want to follow up?"

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"You know." Baldur said with a smile that was part humor, part embarrassed. "That wouldn't be the first time someone called me a walking, talking fortune cookie. Maybe I missed my calling in life, and I should have been a little old asian woman who writes fortune cookies." He gave her a laugh that was pure mirth, and his blue eyes sparkled with delight and peace. Before he had a chance to let the feeling leave him, he caught sight of what appeared to be some NPCs talking, shown by the yellow crystals above their heads. They were talking about a missing person, and Lessa was right, something like that meant that there was either a quest an event going on.

He was a bit surprised when Lessa implied that she was interested in checking out a quest. They were on the 16th floor, so it wasn't that dangerous, even with him out-leveling her by a small bit, she would be fine on this floor on her own, let alone with him by her side.

"Yea, sure, I'd love to!" He told her and followed after the direction of the NPCs, trying to catch up with a short job so he could get a better idea of what they were saying. They quickly turned into a large building of mud and daub, though not in the european style, but in the Ainu style.

"Ladies first." Baldur said with a bemused smile and a slight bow as he gestured to the door.

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“Thank you,” she drawled, ducking past him into the dimly lit room. Parallels could be drawn between this building and the TARDIS, Lessa decided, as it was definitely bigger on the inside. A dozen people or so milled around roughly build tables and chairs, and Lessa blinked away her surprise. “Well,” she began, her voice a hushed, conspiratorial whisper, “it’s a caveman tavern.”

Most of the patrons appeared to be locals, based on their dress, and the way that they clumped together companionably. One individual, however, stood out. Her bright pink light armor shone like a beacon among the dull, earthy-tones. A rapier dangled from her thin hips, and her knee-high boots gleamed in the flickering candlelight. More telling, however, was the fact she was nearly hysterical.

“Seriously, can no one help me?” Her willowy arms were wrapped about herself, a comforting hug that didn’t seem to be working. “No one at all?”

The man she addressed, a native behind the bar, turned his back. The simple action drew a whine of despair from the player, and a pull on Lessa’s heart.

“Poor thing,” the blonde breathed, before stepping forward. When she spoke to the frantic female, she used the same tactics she might on a spooky horse. With her hands extended reassuringly, and voice low and steady, she said, “Hey there. What’s going on?”

The other girl rounded on Lessa, green eyes wide and shimmering like wet emeralds. “I need help,” she countered. “Can you help me?”

Lessa gave the soft, warm smile of a concerned friend. “I can try. Here.” As she continued to speak, Lessa led the overwrought player to the nearest chair. “Why don’t you sit down, and tell me what’s going on.”

Nodding, the woman allowed herself to be led, and dropped obediently into the chair. “I don’t really know-“ she began hesitantly.

“Why don’t we start with your name?”

“Oh, right.” Through the tears, she managed a small, sniffly smile. “My name is Janix.”

Lessa nodded. “Perfect. Nice to meet you, Janix. I’m Lessa, and this is my best friend, Baldur.”

The girl lifted her hand in a pathetic attempt at a greeting, then let it drop back into her lap. “I have a best friend too,” she commented, almost conversationally. “She’s missing.”

Pieces began to fall into place as Lessa recalled the discussion between the natives in the street. “Okay, how long has she been gone?”

The girl loosed a small, one-shouldered shrug. “I don’t know exactly. Maybe a week? We always meet once a week for lunch, on the fourth floor, but she didn’t show up this time. I thought maybe she forgot, or she was busy, but when I pulled up my friends list-“

Janix fell silent, and immediately, Lessa’s chest tightened. That sentence didn’t have to be finished for Lessa to know her friend’s name was gone. That was very rarely a good sign.

“There are a few reasons for that,” the blonde reassured the distraught woman. “I had a friend get mad at me, a long time ago, and he removed me from his list out of anger. Did you two have a fight?”

Janix shook her head, sending her amber curls cascading over her shoulder. “Nuh-uh. We’ve been great. We always find time for each other, which is why I’m so scared. I’ve been going floor to floor, trying to find her, but no one can help me.” Her voice hitched and broke on the last sentence, and Lessa fought the urge to wrap the tiny girl in an embrace.

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Baldur sat down at the table as Lessa lead the girl over and they sat down. He smiled slightly when Lessa addressed him as her best friend, but given the circumstances it didn't touch his eyes as it might have under more favorable table talk. He gave a slight nod of his head to the girl and did not speak, so as not to spook the unnerved girl.

The girl was not on her friend list... Baldur wanted to ask if she had checked the wall of life, but that was not a question to be brought up now. This girl's status was... fragile, and he did not want to break her mental health further.

"What is your friend's name?" Baldur asked her when the conversation began to lull.

The pink armored girl looked over to Baldur, as if surprised that a new person was speaking as she had been focused on Lessa and trying to push through her tears to communicate her need to the one person who had offered to help.

"Her... her handle... was AkariHime." The girl took a deep, steadying breath and Baldur quickly gestured for the barkeep NPC to bring them over a couple of warm beverages.

"She... she went exploring. She said she found a new dungeon or something, that was really great for exp and drops... she was excited to show me all the progress she had made... so when she missed our lunch, I thought that she was just caught up... but then..." the girl become inconsolable again for a moment, letting the sentence hang in the air.

Baldur nodded softly at nothing, simply communicating non-verbally that he was listening to her story. Just then, the bartender brought over their hot drinks and set them on the table.

"Here... drink this, it'll help."

Baldur gestured to the cups and then took one, sipping the warm beverage lightly.

"I think we can help you, but we're gonna need to know more... like where she was exploring..." And we need to check the monument to see if she is still alive.

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“AkariHime, you said?” Lessa wanted to make sure she had the pronunciation right. The foreign word stuck on her tongue, and her presentation was clumsy, but Janix still nodded. “Alright, good. Thank you.” She placed a hand lightly on Baldur’s arm, then said, “I’m going to step out, but I'll be right back.”

With a nod to the grieving girl, Lessa ducked back into the glaring light and smokey air of the sixteenth floor. Summoning her HUD, she composed a brief message to her shopkeeper friend. The woman might grumble about having to close up shop, but under the circumstances, she could be counted on the check the monument for Janix's friend. Let me know what you find out, Lessa finished, before shooting the message off into cyberspace.

Slipping back into the building, she saw that very little had changed in the couple minutes she was gone; both Baldur and Janix sipped at steaming mugs, and the latter looked as wrung-out as she had before. The sight of them squeezed at her heart, and she gulped in a deep breath of warm, sticky air before moving back to the pair. "Here's what I propose," she said by way of greeting. "We'll go look for AkariHime, right now. Janix, if you're feeling up to it, would you mind leading the way?"

As if grounded by being given purpose, the other player's shoulders straightened. It was just a marginal shift, but it did not go unnoticed. "Uh-yeah," the girl confirmed, swiping at her tears as she stood. With a final glance between the two higher players, Janix disappeared through the door. Before continuing, Lessa snagged Baldur's arm and gently, conspiratorially, pulled him closer.

"I have a friend checking the monument," she told him, "but I don't have high hopes. I figured we could walk with her for a while, and then break the news?" Lessa's brows furrowed together in mixed parts concern and pity before she added, "I just don't want her to be alone for this. I know how it feels."

Edited by Lessa

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Baldur watched as Lessa stood up and went outside. He had an idea of what she was doing, he was just surprised at how abrupt the action was. He turned back to Janix and sipped on his tea.

"I... understand how you feel. I came to Aincrad with someone who has since... been lost to me. Not on my friend list, though not struck from the Monument of Life either. Still, I feel responsible for my friends. Whether they view me as one still or not."

Janix gave Baldur a surprised look, and opened her mouth to say something, but then just stared down into her tea, his words seeming to strike home with her. She gave him a slight nod, her shoulders shaking lightly, before taking a sheepish sip of her drink, more a motion of habit than the desire to drink anything.

When Lessa came back, Baldur raised an eyebrow at her where Janix couldn't see, but got no response back from the pretty blond until she sat down and told Janix that they would go and look for her friend. That was when Lessa caught his sleeve and told her the plan, and Baldur nodded solemn, in complete agreement with his friend.

"You're absolutely right. Putting in some effort searching for her friend will help if the worst is true."

Baldur gave her hand a gentle squeeze of reassurance, letting him know that he supported this course of action.

As they stepped out into the open air of the volcanic island floor, Baldur turned to Janix, "So where is this place? Do you know?"

Akari shook her head, "No, just that this was the last floor I remember seeing that she was on. It's gotta be here somewhere."

Baldur signed and opened his inventory, taking out a small black book.

"Well, this is the frontline notes for this floor, I'll see if I can come up with anything, but if it was the way she described it, it's probably something not in the books."

He turned his steel blue eyes to Lessa, "You ever sail one of the boats on this floor?"

Edited by Baldur

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"Nope," Lessa answered easily. "I haven't spent much time at all on this floor. So I'll be about useless when it comes to the ins and outs of this floor." At Janix's concerned expression, she hastily added, "But I've got plenty of experience exploring other ones. We're also fairly powerful players, Baldur especially." Lessa gave her companion a small nod of acknowledgement. "We'll be able to handle anything that comes our way." Her soft smile was warm and reassuring as she reached out to pat Janix's arm.

Janix's returned expression was wobbly, and she gave a small sniff, but it was a start.

As they walked, falling into a shaky silence, Lessa had time to reflect on what Baldur had said back at the tavern. It had been a very long time since she had heard him discuss her, and it tugged at Lessa's heart. Though she'd also lost someone, it had been to death. Tyger, however, had not met such a final end. Instead, she had simply disappeared, in what was most likely a conscious decision to abandon her boyfriend. Where Lessa could easily blame a boss battle, Baldur was left wondering why. And, perhaps in his moments of weakness, wondering what he had done wrong. The mere thought that he might blame himself upset her tremendously, but she had done her best to avoid the topic.


Janix's voice startled Lessa from her musings, and she blinked rapidly to return to the present. "Huh?" she asked dumbly.

Pointing, Janix asked, "Do you see that?"

Lessa followed Janix's finger, and went to say she didn't... but she did. Two thick palm trees were perched on the edge of a large expanse of foliage, bent together to create a sort of doorway. As the dense forest unrolled like a red carpet, Lessa expected to see ferns or something just past the trees. Instead, the scene seemed to shimmer a bit, as if she were looking at it from underwater. "That," she stated, "is not normal."

Edited by Lessa

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Baldur squinted, as if the action would help him see what they were looking at any better. The trees appeared to be forming some kind of portal. They were uncommon in Aincrad. All over the castle were these giant, beautifully elegant platforms. They were impossible to exist in the real world, but they gave Aincrad an otherworldly beauty that could only exist in a world like this. Portals were what linked players from the ground to the top of them, and they gave an unprecedented view of the world around them. They were one of Baldur's favorite features of the landscape here.

But they did not normally look like this.

"That is interesting."

The samurai made his way over to the trees and walked around it, his bright blue haori and orange armor standing out against the darker volcanic background, andchecking behind the tree portal as well, but he couldn't quite see through it. There was landscape beyond, but it was as if trying to see your reflection in a pond after someone had dropped a pebble. It was there, but you couldn't make out any details.

"Whether it's where we're going or not, it should be worth investigating." Baldur caught Lessa's eyes and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. She could tell that he wasn't worried, and was actually enjoying having a bit of purpose to their wandering. There was just something about helping people that cause Baldur to light up, even under such somber purpose.

"Why don't I go first, just in case?" 

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Considering the circumstances, Lessa knew it was no time to argue. It was bold of him to insist he should lead, but at the end of the day, he was a more powerful player. So she gave a small nod. “Fine,” she told him, “but be careful.” Of course he would be careful - he always was. But Lessa still felt the need to say it, and she frowned at his back as he stepped into the haze.

And disappeared.

“What-“ she breathed, blinking owlishly at the spot where Baldur had been.

With her peripheral vision, Lessa could see Janix beginning to tremble. “Where did he go?” she asked, the tremor in her tone as well.

Lessa’s face hardened as she schooled her expression into one of firm resolve. “He’s fine.” She only hoped that her eyes did not reveal her worry.

“But where did he go?” she asked again, anxiety lifting her voice a full octave.

Lessa strode forward, walking a complete circle around the two trees. Her friend was not waiting on the other side, nor could she find any trace of him. All that remained was the layer of shimmering film, strung between the crossed palms.

“I’m going in after him,” she told Janix. Lessa raked both hands through her hair, shoving the thick blonde mane back from her face. “You stay here, okay?”

“D-do you have to?”

Despite it all, a sliver-thin smile crept across Lessa’s chapped lips. “Yeah,” she answered gently. “I do.”

Janix’s lips quivered, and Lessa could only imagine what the girl was going through. Having already lost one friend, she was now facing the prospect of watching two more leave her. Janix shook her head slowly, and asked, “What should I do?”

Can’t bring her with me, and it isn’t safe to leave her standing here. “Do you have a teleportation crystal on you?”

“Uh, yes, I should.”

Lessa nodded. “Good. Use it, and get somewhere you feel comfortable. What’s your favorite place in Aincrad?”

Her confusion was plain, but Janix answered anyway. “There’s a park I really like on the second floor. Near the White Rabbit tavern.”

“Perfect. Go there, okay? Wait for us, and we’ll meet you when we know more.”

The girl’s arms crossed tightly against her chest in an attempt at comfort. And perhaps a weak defiance. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“Don't trust us to look after ourselves?” Lessa prodded back. At Janix’s wince, the blonde added, “We’re going to be okay. Just go.”

And only after the other player did so did Lessa step through the curtain herself.

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Baldur stepped through the tree portal, and everything changed for him.tumblr_nbd255coqa1r4vymlo1_500.gif The next moment, instead of seeing the floor around him, he saw... the tower. The floating castle of Aincrad stood before him in a perspective he had never seen since the box art.

It was very different in person.

He was close enough that it was difficult to see the whole thing, he had to turn his head to see it side to side, and even then, his vision was cut off, and because of the shape of the tower, he couldn't see the top, but it was an impressive sight none-the-less. He could see, in the distance, what he assumed was the floor he had just come from. Looking down and around him, he saw that they appeared to be on one of the floating islands that surrounded the tower. 

"Hoo-lee $#!7"

He didn't have much time to wrap his mind around what happened, before Lessa appeared next to him. He hadn't even tried to send a PM to her to let her know what had happened, since he had been so stunned by finding himself on a forested island floating alongside the castle of Aincrad.

That, however, was when the second point hit him.

There was no portal to take them back.

"Umm... Lessa? There's... no doorway back."

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His voice sounded distant, and somehow tinny, when it finally cut through her shock. "Huh?" she asked dumbly, unable to tear her eyes away from the tower. It was remarkable. Terrifying, and alarming, and a million other -ings that meant something bad - but also remarkable. In all her years in Sword Art Online, Lessa had never seen something like this; it took her breath away.

Drawing it back with a large inhale, she finally swung her gaze back to Baldur. Excitement and awe left her cheeks flushed and her eyes wide, but the expression dulled as his words sunk in. "Oh," she stated, shaking her head slowly as if to clear it. "Oh, okay, that's not good."

Risking another look at the castle, she let out a low whistle. "It's pretty amazing though." A cool breeze whipped up from the land's edge, blasting her hair back from her face, and sending her loose clothes flapping. Given she was escorted by Baldur, she hadn't deemed it necessary to don her heavy armor. Now, she was reconsidering.

So with a tinkle of bells and a swirl of color, Lessa summoned her silver-and-pink rose-etched armor. Hell Rose's familiar weight settled upon her back, and she gave her friend a tight-lipped smile. "I'm willing to bet Janix's friend stumbled here somehow. Want to take a look around?" Then, with a shrug, she added, "I mean, it looks like we don't have much of a choice."

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Baldur took a slow moment to look around them and try to get some bearings. He was amazing at how disorienting it was to be outside of the castle, and to have nothing but blue sky above him. It was almost... surreal. Looking over the edge, he could see the landscape stretching out below him in a way that was more difficult to see from the tower, but also more disorienting to be near the edge.

Just to check for himself, Baldur pulled up the menu, but the log-out button was still missing.

"Alright, so this is probably a sub-dungeon of some kind, which means we can't send or receive private messages. And our teleport crystals may or may not work here. Do you have one on you Lessa?"

Slowly backing away from the edge of the floating island, Baldur turned to face the interior of it.

"This place actually seems pretty big, but if it's a dungeon of some kind too, then there are probably underground levels too, and we won't be able to leave until we accomplish our objective."

The island itself was not quite as volcanic as the islands of the 16th floor, but what Baldur would call a more mature island. It may have been volcanic at one point, but life had begun to flourish on the island and it was covered in tropical trees and undergrowth like he would expect to see in a rainforest. A peak rose up in the distance, but it didn't have smoke rising from the caldera. At least not yet.

Looking around, Baldur also saw what looked like weather moving towards them. Or they were moving towards it, he couldn't tell.

"It looks like we might need to find some shelter here soon too. I wouldn't want to try exploring this place in the dark with storms about, and run into something troubling. On the plus side, at least this is only a 16th floor dungeon..." He tried to make it sound like that was a silver lining, but 16 floor dungeon bosses could still pack a punch.

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